When the New York Times broke the Gov. Chris Christie Bridgegate scandal Jan. 8, few imagined what would happen as investigations went forward. While the bevy of Christie associates linked to the GW Bridge lane closing remain icognito for now, his 52-year-old former high school classmate and Port Authority appointee David Wildstein already took the Fifth in a New Jersey State legislative hearing. When asked about whether he ordered the lane closings Sept. 9-13, causing gridlock for commuters heading from New York City to Fort Lee, New Jersey, Wildstein told Committee Chairman John F. Wisniewski that his attorney Alan Zegas told him to assert his right not to incriminate himself. Judging by the nearly total blackout of the key players linked to Bridgegate scandal, it’s looking more like taking the Fifth is really about protecting Christie from incrimination.
Issuing 20 subpoenas Jan 17, Wisniewski promised to the get the bottom of the mess that anticipates more revelations as his committee and New Jersey’s U.S. Atty. Paul Fishman get working. No one’s heard hide-nor-hair from Christie’s Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Ann Kelly since Christie told a national press conference Jan. 9 that she lied to him about the GW Bridge lane closings. While Christie said he hadn’t talked with Kelly since the scandal broke, he insisted that she’s guilty while simultaneously talking about a possible “traffic study.” Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokollich insists that Christie’s team gummed up GW Bridge traffic to punish him for no supporting the governor’s reelection. Proving that Bridgegate was no fluke, Hoboken’s 45-year-old Mayor Dawn Zimmer said Christie’s office held back federal Sandy recovery funds unless she approved a Christie-backed commercial development.
Zimmer’s allegations raise the stakes in Christie’s efforts to rehab himself politically in the wake of Bridgegate. Raising other shady dealings from the governor’s office hurts Christie’s chances of a 2016 presidential run. Zimmer alleges that Christie’s Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno told her in May that “we are not going to be able to help you [Sandy recovery funds]” unless a commercial real estate project goes forward. Whether true or not, it’s another example of Christie playing hardball with city and state officials in the wake of Sandy. When Wisniewksi or Fishman finally get their hands of key Bridgegate witnesses the public will either get stonewalled or hear the real story behind the GW Bridge lane closings. Closing ranks around Christie without knowing the facts, the GOP goes out on a limb before the upcoming Midterm elections where Congress hangs in the balance.
Hiring Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher’s gun-slinging Randy Mastro, once a Deputy Mayor to former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Asst. U.S. Attorney in New York’s Southern District, shows what’s at stake. Mastro takes-no-prisoners defending GD & C’s elite corporate clients like Chevron. Putting Mastro on Bridgegate, Christie knows that he’s in for a tough fight. With Wildstein’s attorney Zegas asking Wisniewski for an immunity deal, it’s a matter of time before key witnesses sing like canaries. While the GOP anoints Christie as a standup guy for holding a 111-minute press conference Jan. 9, not a single witness connected with Bridgegate has come forward. Tea Party favorite Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fl.), a possible 2016 GOP presidential candidate, told Bob Schieffer on CBS’s “Face The Nation” to reserve judgment until the facts are known in Christie’s case.
Christie’s backers point to over 200 emails that don’t implicate the 52-year-old New Jersey governor in Bridgegate. Those same emails flowed freely in many directions confirming that Christie’s staff orchestrated the GW Bridge lane closing to payback Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich. At the time of Christie’s press conference he acted as if it might have been well-planned “traffic study.” Firing numerous members of his staff, key appointees on the Port Authority and banishing his once coveted campaign manager Bill Stepien doesn’t sound like a botched “traffic study.” Instead of making excuses for Christie, the GOP should wait and see what comes out in the upcoming testimony from key players in Bridgegate. Simply firing a bunch of folks doesn’t answer the question of who ordered his staff to retaliate against Fort Lee Mayor Sokolich or, more recently, Hoboken Mayor Zimmer.
Christie’s political capital has been sinking quickly not only from Bridgegate but recent revelations about hurricane Sandy federal relief funds. If Zimmer’s complaints prove true about a political quid pro quo to get Hoboken’s share of Sandy relief money, Chrsitie will have a lot more explaining to do. At some point, his GOP-backers will seek higher ground, eventually abandoning him as a viable national candidate. Diverting public attention to President Barack Obama or any Democratic cause won’t shift media away from the testimony of Christie’s staff, political appointees and anyone else connected with Bridgegate. “Were going to try to work together,” said New Jersey State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, knowing that Christie’s office—and his newly hired attorney—will do everything possible to stonewall the investigation. What comes next is anyone’s guess, maybe more folks taking the Fifth.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.